Should retailers require food safety certifications?

Global Food Safety certificates from PrimusLabs hang on the wall of the office of Proffer Produce in Park Hills, Mo. The Proffer family owns and operates Missouri Vegetable Farm. (Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)

On Monday, The New York Times reported that 7-Eleven plans to double the sales of its fresh foods from 10 percent to 20 percent by 2015. In 2010, Wal-Mart made a similar pronouncement, saying it would increase the amount of locally sourced produce in its stores from 4 percent to 9 percent by 2015. (Wal-Mart has, in fact, already met that goal and now says it sources 10 percent of its produce from local farms.) Target, too, has its own "Keep it Local" Web site, aimed at helping consumers find local foods in its stores.

The main reason retailers are making this move? Consumers are increasingly demanding to know where their food is coming from and just how fresh and healthy it is.

But how can retailers with national and global reaches ensure that the produce they are buying is fresh, healthy and locally grown? One way, retailers argue, is to require farms to pass third-party audits.

While there are more than a dozen different audits out there, one of the most stringent was created in 2000 by a non-profit called the Global Food Safety Initiative. Farms that get a Global Food Safety accreditation must comply with food safety rules created by this group of food industry experts, along with rules based on local, state and federal food safety guidelines. Wal-Mart, Safeway and Costco are among the retailers that require most farms they do business with to be GFS-certified.

One of the third-party groups performing these audits is PrimusLabs. The Santa Maria, Calif.-based company charges a farm $810 for a GFS certification. But because it's such a high bar to pass the audit, farms often must pay for infrastructure improvements to become compliant. Farmers I spoke with in Missouri said they'd heard of some farmers paying more than $1,000 to get the GFS certification.

PrimusLabs, which is a 25-year-old company that specializes in produce industry audits, has been performing more audits over the past two years. The spike is likely due to illnesses and costly lawsuits related to outbreaks caused by produce contamination, according to a company spokesperson. 

Another kind of audit that's slightly less stringent is the Good Agricultural Practice (or GAP) audit. The GAP audit, for which PrimusLabs charges $580, was created 10 years ago by a coalition of U.S. Department of Agriculture staff, buyers and industry representatives. Passing a GAP audit doesn’t guarantee a farm's fruit or vegetables are free from microbial contamination, but it does verify that the participant has taken proactive measures to reduce the risk of contamination by adhering to a set of industry best practices.

While many farms deliberate whether or not to get a GFS certification or to pay for a GAP audit, others are doing business with retailers that don't yet have audit requirements in place. Grocery chain Hy-Vee, for example, doesn't require farms to pass third-party audits or certifications.

Let us know what you think. Is the trend of big corporations going local a good thing?